Ex-Argentine president Nestor Kirchner dies at 60

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 27, 2010; 10:08 PM

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA - Nestor Kirchner, an Argentine power broker who as president from 2003 to 2007 helped guide his country out of a calamitous economic crisis, died Oct. 27 after an apparent heart attack.

Mr. Kirchner, 60, was at his weekend retreat in El Calafate, a resort city in southern Argentina, when he was stricken and rushed to the hospital.

His death plunged South America's second-largest country into political uncertainty, because he had been expected to run for the presidency next year, with many political analysts predicting victory.

"Nestor Kirchner was such an obvious choice in the next presidential election that this just throws the deck of cards into the air," said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program at Washington's Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "Obviously, there's now going to be tremendous jockeying, but no one commands the national following that he had."

Mr. Kirchner had decided not to seek reelection in 2007 for reasons that were never made clear. He successfully pushed the candidacy of his wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who won in a landslide. But Mr. Kirchner was said to wield extraordinary influence on the most important policy decisions. His role in his wife's government had been so important that the Argentine media referred to the executive branch as a dual presidency, or "Los K."

The Kirchners were among the most polarizing leaders in South America, where they were part of a group of leftist leaders elected over the last decade. Beloved by poorer Argentines for expanding social programs, Mr. Kirchner was also reviled as an autocrat who would use the power of the government to weaken rivals.

In 2008, he accused farmers of plotting his wife's overthrow when they protested tax hikes. With his wife, he took on Grupo Clarin, a media company that operates the country's largest newspaper, which has been critical of the political duo. A media decentralization law approved last year limited the number of broadcast licenses that Clarin could hold.

In Washington, President Obama offered his condolences to Fernandez de Kirchner and said Nestor Kirchner had "played a significant role in the political life of Argentina" and as the current leader of the Union of South American Nations. In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez mourned the death of an ally whom he considered a friend. "Oh, my dear Cristina . . . how sad," Chavez said via Twitter. "What a huge loss suffered by Argentina and our America! May Kirchner live forever!"

Mr. Kirchner's death prompted the Argentine cabinet to rush to El Calafate in the mountains of southern Patagonia, where Fernandez de Kirchner had been accompanying her husband. Though he had undergone an angioplasty last month, Mr. Kirchner remained the consummate political operator, meeting with union bosses, foreign leaders and political allies.

A one-time governor from the sparsely populated and resource-rich Santa Cruz province - in the country's south - Mr. Kirchner was catapulted to the presidency 18 months after Argentina recorded the biggest debt default in history, $95 billion.

In a matter of days, the country was locked out of the international credit market, millions of Argentines were plunged into poverty and a series of governments collapsed.

He won office by default, with only 22 percent of the vote after the front-running candidate, former president Carlos Menem, abandoned his campaign.

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